If you are poor, live in Louisiana, and have the audacity ask someone else for help, be prepared to spend up to six months in jail.
A new bill to outlaw panhandling is quickly moving its way through the Louisiana legislature. HB 1158 would criminalize solicitation, making it a misdemeanor punishable with a maximum fine of $200 and up to six months in jail. The bill is targeted not just at panhandlers, but hitchhikers and those engaged in prostitution as well.
The bill passed the Louisiana House last week by a vote of 89-0. There was no floor debate. It is now being taken up by the Senate, where it will be acted on Tuesday.
The bill’s author, State Rep. Austin Badon (D), told Post TV that he hoped that banning begging will somehow lead to fewer poor people on the streets. He doubted that many were in actual need, saying, “they’re paying their cell phone bills, they’re paying their computer bills. It’s a racket.”
Badon is echoing a familiar trope — that panhandlers are living large from others’ charity. But it’s not based on any actual research. In fact, a major study of panhandlers in San Francisco last year found just the opposite: the vast majority make $25 a day ($9,125 per year) or less. That meager income is largely used to eat. Nearly every beggar — 94 percent — said they used the money they receive for food; less than half used it for drugs or alcohol.
Many municipalities around the country have passed anti-panhandling laws, but they usually do so under the guise of banning “aggressive panhandling,” an undefined term that attempts to circumvent various court rulings that the First Amendment protects people’s right to ask others for money. It is far less common to see states like Louisiana attempt to criminalize begging outright.
But other places, like Boise last year and Sacramento currently, have taken up anti-panhandling measures recently. (Boise’s law was quickly struck down by a federal judge earlier this year.) A report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that more than half of cities across the country prohibit begging “aggressively” or in particular places, while 24 percent have citywide bans on panhandling, a 7 percent increase between 2009 and 2011.